From the Cubicle: Fighting the Burnout

by Jason Group

Zack Arias

February 19, 2013

For my first “official” column, I thought I’d start with an issue every artist faces: BURNOUT. In wedding and portrait photography—an industry that moves at lightning speed—trends come and go faster than any other niche of the art world.

Part of the reason for this tendency, I believe, is that we’ve always been the first to adopt new ideas, technology and products into our businesses. We shun the “KOTOGS” (Keepers of the Old Guard) and don’t bow down to the peeps who’ve been doing it a long time (which is ironic because they’re the people who could probably offer the most advice on burnout). Unfortunately, we also don’t want to listen to the “when I first started...” routine repeatedly to get the good advice.

Burnout can be brought on by one or more factors, and we all suffer from it in one way or another. First things first, let’s look at the different kinds—and sources. With artistic burnout, we find ourselves shooting the same thing repeatedly. Perhaps you’re repeatedly booked for weddings in the same catering hall, or your senior clientele requests that you shoot at an uninspiring or clichéd location.

Another common affliction in the industry is business burnout, in which the business side demands so much of us that we get buried in paperwork resulting in hours of mundane work that crushes our inner artist.

Let’s start with business burnout. Most of us get into our businesses because we love taking pictures. Somewhere along the line, we decide we want make photography our career, transforming it from a pastime or hobby into our main source of income. Typically, we will start with a few paid clients and “figure it out” from there. Unfortunately, this approach is probably the worst way to start a business. Look at the “real world” and the way things are done when a person decides to start a business; there is usually a “procedure” that includes a written business plan and even a budget.

By not planning the process, we might find ourselves stumbling through it, and all too often making costly mistakes. This kind of gaffe can lead to hours of backtracking and, eventually, business burnout. Trust me, 20 years into it: the school of hard knocks is NOT the way to do it.  

The remedy? Start by looking for a good accountant, as well as someone who can be your business coach. Setting up how your business will run 12 months in advance will allow you to set goals, and also plan for shorter, less-frequent periods of time in which to handle the tiresome administrative work that keeps you from your art. I suggest that you “switch up” your routine, and be creative about the way you approach your work. As artists, we need to shake up the routine to avoid procrastinating on our “homework.”

If you have the means, I’d also suggest outsourcing as much of this work as you can. I do it by having a studio manager, a great accountant and a coach. This leaves me with very little busy business work, but it does comes with a price tag.

Now let’s tackle artistic burnout.  You’ll recognize a bad case of artistic burnout at the first sign of eye-rolling at the thought of an upcoming shoot, whether it’s a wedding, senior session or engagement shoot. Come on, you know what I’m talking about: that family photo you’ve done six years in a row, on the beach, and where the clients all wear matching khaki and white. Or, the wedding at the catering hall where they make you come in the back door, and fight for dinner every single time, even though dinner is negotiated in your contract.

It’s those jobs that stifle you in every way, and give you the feeling you’re going into battle rather than being the creative artist you dreamed of early on in your career. How do we fight it? With the help of a couple of my close friends, here are a few suggestions...

Tim Halberg, a photographer in Santa Barbara writes:

“I fight burnout through outside activities and adventure, e.g. golf, backpacking, mountain biking. I’ve re-learned to live out the adventure. I used to do it well, and then got married and got ‘serious’ about my business and then started to burn out. I employed the wisdom of Jeff Jochum, and he helped me ‘re-learn’ who I am at my core and encouraged me to embrace it again. Learning again how important adventure is to me, I’ve been able to be okay with sneaking away from work to play or have an adventure because this keeps me sane.”

Christine Tremoulet, a Houston-based boudoir photographer writes:

“I outsource my editing to a local friend whom I’ve worked closely with to match my style. I watch my schedule so I make sure to keep free time available. A rested mind works better. And the biggies—I’ve chosen to specialize in working with clients that I am completely passionate about. The only work I take outside of that is for past clients (or people they refer) that I had a strong connection with, and that keeps me happy.”

Both Tim and Christine are seasoned photographers, and they (like myself) have experienced many ups and downs along the way. Tim has rebranded himself almost as many times as I have, with the goal of finding the right clientele to match his lifestyle. I’m almost a “serial rebrander,” and I’d suggest working really hard to find your “why” before deciding on your branding.

That being said, I think they offer great advice. In Tim’s case, he takes advantage of his athletic side to fight fatigue. (He also happens to live in a great location to do so!)

Christine offers some concrete advice about how to de-stress your working day, and I could not agree more with her.

1. Outsource!
Over the last few years, outsourcing has been a hot topic. IMHO, if you’re spending the time processing your own raw files, it’s a serious waste of time. However, I also believe that you must spend the time learning how your images should look, and how you shoot. Getting it right in camera seems to be a lost art these days, and “it’s good enough, I’ll fix it in post” seems to have become more of the norm. Many people will start outsourcing at the advice of our peers, but how can you tell a post house how you want your images to look if you don’t know yourself?

Learning how to shoot, expose and process your own images is an important process that you shouldn’t take for granted. Take one to two years to practice working on your images, then by all means, GET IT OUT OF YOUR HAIR!

2. Specialize!
There are two parts to this:  

A) Work with people you have a connection with. Over the years, I’ve had some awful clients I just didn’t connect with. I’m not saying you should become best friends with your clients (although Christine might argue that point), but you should agree to a certain extent on things.  

B) More importantly, you should only be doing the kind of photography you feel passionate about. Don’t get me wrong, you will have jobs you don’t like, but you should be excited about at least 90 percent of the gigs you do. There’s no better way to burn yourself out than by shooting gigs that don’t energize you. Sounds a bit selfish, right? You bet!

Finally, everyone needs to find his or her own path to Nirvana. My way isn’t necessarily going to work for you, but the basics never change. Finding time for yourself, and your business are paramount to success. Remember, it’s never too late to make a change. Trust me, I’m a 25-year work in progress!   

Jason Groupp joined the WPPI team shortly before Thanksgiving 2012. As a wedding photographer, and an active part of the community for the last 25 years, Groupp intends to bring his unique insight on the industry to help make WPPI better than ever. He’s also a pretty friendly guy, and wants to chat with you, so make sure you say hi when you see him….he’s the guy with the bow tie.

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